Monthly Archives: December 2011

A touch of Milanese luxury


Buon Natale!  Christmas arrives early in Milan. At the end of november, stores start stocking up these large, beautiful, if slightly awkwardly-shaped boxes  – Panettone has arrived!  So can Christmas be far behind?

Panettone is the `official’ Italian Christmas bread  – alas, baking is not my favourite thing-to-do, so I just buy it. Unwrapping the package sends aromas of baked goodness wafting into the air, and I can’t wait to cut into it! It looks HUGE – “There’s no way I can eat even a single slice of that!” is the immediate reaction..but  wait…that’s because it is a leavened, `thrice-risen’ bread – full of air and lightness. For me, the beauty is in the cupola shape – reminds me of the  Florentine domes.

The traditional Milanese panettone is studded with raisins and orange and lemon peel, adding texture and flavor. There are of course modern versions which are plain or have chocolate chips. I am a traditionalist!

Speaking of tradition, I was pretty surprised to know that Panettone became the `official’ Christmas bread only about a century ago, when an enterprising baker named Angelo Motta (yes – motta..for those who do not speak Hindi, mota=fat!) started baking this bread in large quantities around Christmas. Other bakers started to do the same, and voila! A tradition was born.

So where did Motta get his recipe from? As  is the case with many foods, legends and stories abound. There is evidence that the ancient Romans baked a similar leaved bread sweetened with honey. Such a bread has also been depicted in some medieval paintings and mentioned in an old recipe book.

There is an endearing story about  a banquet which was held at the court of the Sforza Duke of Milan in the 1500s, and for whatever reason, the dessert was burned. Panic stricken chefs rushed around trying to find a substitute (“Off with his head” might have been a major motivator) when a little kitchen boy named Toni timidly piped up – he had made a dessert for himself with leftover flour, butter and sugar, and would the chef care to try it? Well, that was that – the Duke loved it, the chef kept his head, and the bread was named Pane de  Toni (Toni’s bread).

A romantic story is that of a Milanese nobleman who fell in love with a baker’s daughter, and to impress her he baked up a luxurious bread called Pane de Tono (Bread of Luxury). Either way, all legends seem to lead back to Milan and it’s logical – no one does luxury like the Milanese.

So here’s what this luxurious bread looks like on the inside.

Typically, panettone is served with a sweet beverage – a rich hot chocolate, or a sweet wine like Moscado. Breakfast, dessert or a snack – it fits all!  I like to toast it  a bit before I eat it – so I get a warm crisp exterior and a flaky soft interior…ummm…heaven on a plate! So may joy and peace be yours in this festive season as you luxuriate in the warmth of family and friends.


What’s Math got to do, got to do with it?


OK – it has to be told. The first time I encountered Broccoli Romanesco (in a Belgian supermarket), I stared, and stared, and (I am not ashamed to admit), stared some more. What was this mad mad looking vegetable? Size and shape of a broccoli/cauliflower, green in color like a common cabbage – all familiar. But good Lord – what were these whorls  and spirals and peaks and troughs and millions of tiny florets? It looked like a genetically mutated broccoli or a cauliflower on steroids, something dreamed up by a crazy scientist furiously mixing away in his lab.

Broccoli Romanesco is a member of the family of cruciferous vegetables which include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, mustard greens, and whole bunch of other leafy greens. These are superbly nutritious and are categorized as `super foods’ which build immunity, cardiovascular health, are anti-carcinogenic, and protect us from a whole range of diseases. But  then, you know most of this blah already.

Steaming, microwaving and stir frying are the best ways to cook these vegetables, resulting in the least loss of nutrients. Boiling is the best way to lose nutrients (and anyway boiling  most of these veggies produces a devilish odor, caused by the release of the sulfurous compounds they contain).

To me, the most interesting thing about Romanesco is the structure – it is an outstanding example of symmetry, harmony and mathematical precision in nature.  Each of the florets is made up of smaller identical florets, which in turn are made of of even smaller florets. It’s what could be called a fractal vegetable.

In mathematics, a fractal is defined as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole,” a property called `self-similarity’ (thanks Wikipedia!). Fractal patterns abound in nature – seashells, coastlines, leaf veins and lightning bolts. To see some stunning examples of fractal photography, click this link (could you please  please do this after you finish reading this post? Those images make my amateur photography look very pathetic!)

So how did I cook this edible math lesson? Quite simple really – 4 easy steps.

ROMANESCO MATHEMATICA (prep time 5 mins, cooking time 8 mins)

* Romanesco (or broccoli or cauliflower)  – 1 large

* Garlic – 4 cloves, sliced

* Olive oil – 2 tsp

* Extra virgin olive oil (if you don’t have any, just substitute with regular olive oil) – 1 tbsp

* Lemon juice – 1 large

* Salt to taste

* Sugar – a pinch

Step 1 – Admire Romanesco in all it’s glory. Once you’re done, cut up into medium sized florets

Step 2 – Steam the florets for 3-4 mins until they are 50-70% cooked and bright green in color. How much you cook them depends on how crunchy/raw you like your vegetables – remember they will continue to cook even after they are off the heat!  I use my microwave steamer – something I cannot live without in my kitchen…but that is a story for another day.

All steamed up...

Step 3 – Heat olive oil in a non stick pan until medium hot. Add in the steaming hot Romanesco, garlic and salt. I add these all at once , along with 2 tbsps of the `steaming water’ so the garlic does not brown/burn but still gets cooked and lends it’s wonderful aroma and flavor to the dish). Combine all the ingredients well, cover and cook on low heat for about 3 mins.

Step 4 – Remove from heat, add lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and sugar – serve hot! It works well as a side dish, a warm salad or even as part of a main course over pasta or rice. Today I also topped it with a spoon of my favourite seed mix – that’s what you see in the photo. You’ll hear more about this mix of mine at some point…so like I was saying, feel free to add some seeds to the dish as a final touch – sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, whatever’s handy.

So enjoy this dish, enjoy the beauty of nature, and remember your Math teacher fondly ; ) I’m off to listen to my vintage Tina Turner CDs at top volume (or at whatever volume the neighbours can tolerate).

More no-have than have


I used to live in SE Asia, and one of the things I really miss, apart from the glorious, glorious food (don’t even get me started on that!!) is the very endearing English that is spoken in those parts. All  of us (`native’ and `non-native’ speakers alike) mutilate the language in different ways, and the English language pretty much`rules’ the world because it gently and cheerfully expands to accommodate local idioms and expressions.

So, back to the point then – One of my favorites phrases was`massimum’ (instead of `minimum’!) eg. `We will take massimum 15 days to deliver the furniture” which meant you had to start waiting only after 15 days…I learned the hard way. Another favourite phrase was `no have’ which is self-explanatory – something that was not available in the shop. My memories of this phrase are ego-crushing. Typically it was used when I went clothes shopping ” Madame  is size XXXL – no have”. Me? XXXL? Scary!! Tells you something about the beautifully petite women of that region.

But this is a food blog right? Oh – ok. So here is my `No-Have’ Vietnamese soup. The correct name is Canh Chua, which translates as `sour soup’. The name is simplistic – the soup is a full-on medley of flavors – sour, sweet, hot and salt. It can be made with fish, prawns or both. Even vegetarian, if you like (certainly some loss of flavor, but well that’s just my opinion).

With this recipe, I digress from my usual obsession with careful measurements of time and ingredients (a source of much merriment to my Indian friends where `andaza’ – estimation of ingredients is considered to be the hallmark of effortless and good cooking). It’s a `taste-as-you-go’ soup, simply because everyone has different preferences of how sweet-sour-hot they like things.

Why do I call it No-Have? Well because many of the key ingredients are no-have, here where I live. Either they are impossible to get (like Bac Ha/Elephant Ears) or not very easy to get (like okra). So I make do with what I have (thank you Ms. Ha, my wonderful Vietnamese cook. I miss you!)  and enjoy the flavors of that exotic country I used to call home.


* Water – 2 litres

* Fresh ginger (powder will just not do) – 2 inches (sliced thin)

* Tinned pineapple – 1 (quartered, retain the juice)

* Tomatoes –  2 (quartered)

* Bac Ha/Elephant Ears – no have. So I use celery – 1-3 stems (Sliced diagonally, thick)

* Coriander leaves – no have. So I use celery leaves, chopped

* Okra – no have

* Bean sprouts – no have

* Fish sauce – atleast 2 tbsps

* Tamarind paste – atleast 1 tbsp (available at Asian or Indian stores). If using dried tamarind, soak a mandarin-sized ball in hot water (enough to cover it) for 30 mins, mash and strain, and use the strained pulp

* Palm sugar/jaggery – no have. I use brown sugar – to taste

* Salt

* Soy sauce – atleast 2 tsps

* Prawns/fish (white, boneless)  or both – as much as you like

* Fresh chilly – 1 (optional. Slit to release flavor)

– Boil the water with ginger for 20 mins in a covered pan

– Add tamarind paste, fish sauce,soy sauce, pineapple juice  and celery (okra if using) and boil some more. Simmer for 20 mins, tasting and adjusting the flavors as you go along. Use salt and sugar only if needed. Add more boiling water if the flavors have gone wrong!

– When you are happy with the balance, add tomatoes, pineapple, chilly , bean sprouts (if using) and fish/prawns and cook another 5 minutes

– Scatter the celery leaves over the soup just before serving

Serve it as a soup, or as I usually do in my home – with boiled rice, in a large bowl. It makes for a completely satisfying, delicious, easy and nutritionally adequate meal. The fun part of this soup is that you can eat loads of it, until you are literally bursting – but you know what? It’s really light on your stomach and system, so in a hour or two, you’re ready for more! Make a big pot full of it, and watch people reach for seconds..and thirds…

Small change


Quick – what can 1 Euro buy you? A coffee ? In Italy, just about…elsewhere in Europe, not likely. A snack ? Maybe. Saw a McDonald’s poster in Pavia advertising the same.

How about knowledge, good health, good taste, eco-friendliness and local and seasonal eating – all for 1 Euro?

Growing up, seasonal eating was something we did very naturally – what was in season was in the market. Now it’s a choice we make…supermarkets are full of produce flown in from all over the world. We’re lucky here in Italy – the soil is rich and the climate salubrious, which makes for an abundance and variety of  local produce all year round.

So if you like to eat seasonal and local, here’s something I must share with you, my friends in Italy, the fantastic `seasonal calendar’ I picked up at Eately ( It’s located in the basement of the Coin department store on Piazza Cinque Giornate.

The calendar  is beautifully illustrated and has the names of the fruits and the vegetables in Italian – helps me feel and look less lost when I’m shopping. My only problem is with how the calendar `works’  –  it folds out like a map but  it’s not designed to be put up on the kitchen wall or the fridge where it could be quickly referenced. I mean that is the whole point, isn’t it? If only someone thought these things through. (there goes my process-oriented brain again!) . And oh – it costs 1 Euro.

Look for it near the check out counter


In all its unwieldy glory


And here's what's in season for December